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Central Asia: Destabilization Fears Sparked By Iraq War

  • Farangis Najibullah

Some nations in Central Asia have stepped up security in response to the war in Iraq. The region has been a strong supporter of the international antiterrorism campaign in Afghanistan, offering bases and airspace to the U.S.-led coalition. However, they have taken a different stance in the Iraq crisis. Only one of the five Central Asian countries officially supports the military attacks on Iraq.

Prague, 21 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Kyrgyz authorities say the Gansi Airbase of the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition will not be used to launch attacks on Iraq.

Askar Aitmatov, the Kyrgyz foreign minister, told journalists yesterday that the base, which is located at Manas international airport, 25 kilometers from the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, can only be used for the antiterrorism operation in Afghanistan.

Kyrgyzstan, along with neighboring Uzbekistan, is hosting troops from the international antiterrorism coalition. But the two neighbors, among America's closest allies in the antiterrorism campaign in Afghanistan, have completely different stances on the war in Iraq.

While Kyrgyzstan has been vocal in opposing military action in Iraq, Uzbek leaders strongly support the U.S.-led war against the Iraqi regime. Uzbekistan hosts U.S. forces at its Khanabad Airbase. It is the only Central Asian republic on the list of countries that support Iraqi disarmament by military means. Uzbek officials say that while they have no plans to send troops to Iraq they would like to take part in rebuilding postwar Iraq.

Some Central Asian officials say the war in Iraq will lead to the destabilization of the Middle East and may also have consequences for Central Asia. In connection with the war, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are stepping up security. Additional security measures are being taken in public spaces, around embassies, and military facilities.

News agencies quote Elizabeth Ortiz, a spokeswoman at the Gansi base in Kyrgyzstan, as saying security also has been stepped up at the air base.

Kyrgyz law enforcement officials say they fear a possible rise in anti-American sentiment in the country that could led to terrorist attacks. Rebels from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan have launched attacks against Kyrgyzstan from their bases in Afghanistan since 1999.

However, local experts say large scale anti-Americanism has never been an issue in Central Asia, and it is even less likely that such sentiment would take people to the streets for demonstrations, let alone destabilize the region. Even at the height of antiwar protests all over the world during the past weeks, there were almost no demonstrations in Central Asia to denounce a possible military attack against Iraq.

Nasrulloh Rasulzoda, a Tashkent-based expert, tells RFE/RL that U.S. troops should avoid damage to holy sites in Iraq to prevent anger among Muslim countries.

"A war against a certain regime could be more or less understood, as long as the American troops do not destroy holy cities and cites. This is a very sensitive issue for Muslims."

Unlike Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan has no fears of terrorist or extremist groups, but Kazakhs have their own reason to worry about the outcome of the war in Iraq. Kazakhstan has vast oil resources and has been attracting significant foreign investment since its independence in 1991. Some Kazakhs are concerned that investors could turn their attention to Iraq's oil resources, once the current regime in Baghdad is overthrown.

These concerns are not baseless. Western companies find it difficult to transport Kazakh oil to the West. The country is located far from Western consumers, and there is no efficient pipeline route to transport oil from Kazakh sites.

Omirbek Baigeldy, the vice chairman of the Kazakh Senate, denounces the American-led war in Iraq.

"No country, including even powerful America, has any right to launch a war," he said. "The world will never be the same again after this war. I am sure there will be lots of changes in the world order."

The Kazakh Foreign Ministry warned its citizens against traveling to Turkey and the Middle East. Kazakh Airline has suspended flights to Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.

As usual Turkmenistan, another Central Asian country with huge natural resources, has remained silent on the Iraqi crisis. The isolated government of President Saparmurat Niyazov prefers not to comment on world affairs. However, news agencies quote an unnamed Turkmen official who says the war will have a negative impact on the regional economy.

Meanwhile, the Tajik government -- America's other ally in the antiterrorism campaign in Afghanistan -- issued a short and cautious statement regarding the war in Iraq. Tajik officials expressed hope that civilian casualties in Iraq will be minimal.

Mufti Amonulloh Ne'matzoda, the spiritual leader of Tajik Muslims, says he is concerned that Islamic monuments in Iraq will be destroyed during bombardments.

Shodi Shabdolov, the leader of the Tajik Communist Party, tells RFE/RL that the U.S.-led military attack on Iraq reminds him of the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan in 1979, which led to the destabilization of the region.

"The continuation of the war in Iraq will destabilize the situation in Central Asia, Afghanistan, and the other countries around Afghanistan."

Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov addressed security issues in his annual Nawruz message to the Tajik nation. However, the war in Iraq was not specifically mentioned.

(RFE/RL's Kazakh and Uzbek services contributed to this report.)